RADENTHEIN, Austria—At the end of a picturesque hiking trail just outside this town in the Austrian Alps lies a small wooden trough with a faucet spouting fresh water. Surrounded by lush green plants, a yellow sign nearby explains that the water comes from the towering Nock Mountains above, noting that local communities have for centuries benefited from the “special” water that flows here.
Filling my bottle from that faucet and taking a sip, clear and cold and pure, it was easy to see why Austria’s water is a point of national pride. Which helps explain why there was such an outcry when a video leaked this year of Heinz-Christian Strache, the country’s former vice chancellor and leader of the populist far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ), offering to, among other things, sell that water (“white gold,” he called it) to Russia.
It’s been a wild ride lately for the FPÖ, and for Austria: Less than five months ago, the party was the junior partner in a coalition led by Sebastian Kurz of the center-right People’s Party (ÖVP), and it had control over policy in key areas such as migration and security. It was the most high-profile example of a government between the center right and the far right in Europe—that is, until the video emerged of Strache, in a secret meeting on the Spanish island of Ibiza, offering up state contracts in exchange for election help from a woman he believed was the niece of a Russian oligarch. The video’s release triggered both Strache’s resignation and the government’s collapse, sending Austria back to the polls. Despite “Ibizagate,” polls throughout the summer showed the FPÖ holding on to most of its core electorate.